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NASA Sun probe named for solar wind boffin Eugene Parker

Space weather announcement, forecast: SCORCHIO

Sun photo via Shutterstock

Breaking with the recent focus on flinging probes and bots at our planetary neighbours, around July next year NASA will set the controls for the heart of the Sun.

Actually, the plan is for the Solar Probe Plus to stop a good 6.2 million kilometres (3.9 million miles) short of Sol's surface, where the craft will have to endure positively scorching temperatures of 1,377°C (2,500° F), but you can't deny us a neat Pink Floyd reference.

The mission has been planned for a while, and was previously branded the NASA Solar Probe; it's now called Solar Probe Plus Parker Solar Probe, and today we heard a bit more detail about what the applied physics brainboxes in charge have planned.

Participants in the mission include solar astrophysicist Eugene Parker himself, who's currently the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago; space weather and applied physics boffin Nicola Fox, mission project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland; cosmologist Rocky Kolbe, dean of Physical Sciences at the University of Chicago; astrophysicist Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington; and former Bell Labs' man (and physicist) Eric Isaacs, who is executive vice president for research, innovation and national laboratories at the University of Chicago.

So why are we looking at our closest star? "This mission will provide insight on a critical link in the Sun-Earth connection. Data will be key to understanding and, perhaps, forecasting space weather," NASA says on the mission page.

Local "space weather", such as solar winds and flares, can affect our Pale Blue Dot in a number of ways. Coronal Mass Ejections, large releases of plasma from the solar corona, are not only responsible for the Northern and Southern Lights aurorae but, if strong enough, can disrupt radio transmissions and damage satellites and power lines, potentially resulting in long-lasting blackouts. Humans at high altitudes, including aeroplanes and astronauts, are also exposed to intense radiation from these cosmic rays.

The corona, that wispy aura of ionised elements around the star where the probe will be hanging out, is hotter than the Sun's surface. Astroboffins would like to know why that is, as well as how solar winds are accelerated – CMEs can erupt at several million miles an hour. "Until we can explain what is going on up close to the Sun, we will not be able to accurately predict space weather effects that can cause havoc [on] Earth," NASA says.

The Solar Probe Plus will get closer to everyone's favourite ball of flaming gas than any other spacecraft, smashing the rather wimpy record of 27 million miles set by Helios 2 in 1976. At 3.9 million miles, the SPP will have access to all types of solar wind for sampling, including "particle measurements from the lowest energy plasma through the most energetic particles associated with solar flares, measurements of plasma waves that enable energy and momentum flow, and coronal imaging 'from the inside out'."

Obviously, "inhospitable environment" is an understatement here and NASA faces new challenges in building a bot capable of withstanding the extreme temperatures. The answer, engineers hope, is to protect the craft's instruments with a 4.5-inch carbon composite shield.

The administration announced more details about the Solar Probe Plus mission live on NASA Television at 4pm BST (11am EDT). NASA TV live feed is below. ®

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